Day 1, March 12. Flew out of National Airport, through Miami (as usual) down to the new Quito airport. It has been open only a few months and is not at all convenient to downtown Quito. Sort of like Dulles was to DC when it was first constructed.
My bag was the penultimate to come on to the carousel and then I had a long wait in the customs line. All told, it was an hour from the time I landed until I walked out the door. There was Rudy Gelis, my guide, coming through the door. Perfect timing! We loaded up and headed south into the night.
The aim was to get as far along the road as possible, because we had a long way to go. We made it to Latacunga, along the Panamerican Highway, through the Central Andean Valley. It was a little after 10PM when we saw the light of a hotel that was about to close for the night. It was perfect as it had locked parking for the car and was only $20 for one room for the two of us. We crashed.
Day 2, March 13. At 5:30 we were up and out. The traffic was really bad, with huge eighteen wheelers and buses…plus tiny little pickup trucks that I swear were powered by Singer Sewing Machine engines. (I first encountered these years ago in Costa Rica).
Our target that morning was Lake Colta, right alongside the road, a large, marshy lake. We arrived there at 9 something, and the sun was already so bright as to make decent photography difficult. Rudy had not been there in a few years and me, never. We found the dock area where Rudy remembered getting Ecuadorian Rails to be abandoned and in a bad state of repair. We saw a few small marsh birds here that were lifers for me.
Rudy moved along the shore line and heard the rails calling, so got out his playback. The rails came to the edge of the marsh and I tried shooting them with the 200-400 hand held. It worked pretty well, but not to my satisfaction. We returned to the car and retrieved my tripod and tried again. One rail came right out in the open. I should have used my flash for fill in on this shot, as the sun was so bright, the shadows detracted from the image quality.
We then moved further around the lake and found some large open water at the north end. There were dozens of Andean Coots here, as well as Andean Ruddy Ducks (a new bird for me), Blue-winged Teal and Silvery Grebes. A pair of the latter were feeding two young and easy to photograph.
Here we also saw a female Kestrel (photographed) and a Cinereous Harrier, a rare raptor in Ecuador. All in all, I picked up five life birds at this location before we headed on down south. Heavy traffic was present all the way to the outskirts of Cuenca, a large city that I had not previously visited.
Our aim out of Cuenca for the next day was Caja National Park. At first, probably 20 kilometers out of Cuenca, there were signs for Caja along a divided, modern highway. As we got close to the city the signs for Caja disappeared entirely. We stopped no fewer than four times asking directions and each time we got a bum steer until the last. We wanted to get a hotel on the west side of the city to facilitate departure the following morning.
Again we asked directions for a hotel, and again we were led astray. I cannot account for this, but people told us specifically that there was a nearby hotel, when there wasn’t! Finally a policeman offered to lead us to a moderate priced hostel and we readily accepted the offer. We found exactly what we were looking for. We crashed after a modest dinner in a little “restaurant” right next to the hostel. We were the only diners.
Day 3, March 14
Up and out early, we drove due west, climbing the entire time. Soon we were in Caja National Park on a beautiful morning. The road was a very impressive feat of engineering, twisting and turning, but, despite the enchanting scenary, there was no place to park! No place to pull over. It was very frustrating.
Rudy had known a place where there was a gravel road to an old farm house, but when we went by, there was a locked gate across the road. He pulled over anyway as best he could and even though neither of us liked how close this left the vehicle to traffic, there was little choice.
Rudy knew this place to be reliable for Tit-like Dacnis, one of our target birds. The male dacnis is all blue, irredescent blue in the right light. Rudy could hear several as soon as we exited the car. But photographing them was another question. They tend to hide in thick bushes and small trees, flying back and forth but giving few open views. Finally a female popped into view briefly and I was able to make two images before she disappeared. This was right along the road, but inside the guardrail.
We changed location to a place where there was an open spot for me to stand. The birds repeatedly went across this spot and I made many, many images. The exposure was very difficult because of the extremely bright light at something over 13,000 feet elevation and no clouds.
After many tries using my Better Beamer flash projector, I was able to make this image and several more that captured the full beauty of this bird. I was delighted!
The other target bird for the mountains was the Giant Conebill, a bird that is present in very small numbers at Papallacta, but one I had never successfully seen. We moved the car to a new location amongst Polyepsis trees where these birds hang out. I sat in the car for some minutes while Rudy when off looking. After awhile he returned and said that he had heard at least three different birds.
We got my gear out and I planted myself in another small clearing while Rudy went out looking again. He came back and we made several unsuccessful attempts to photograph the birds, although we did see some. Finally, we came across a family group that was quite content to remain in one location, preening, feeding and just hanging out. I got the photos I wanted.
In the afternoon, we made a stop at the Visitors Center where the chief attractions were a few Llamas wandering around free. Nothing much else there except some wildflowers and pretty scenes. Further down hill, we stopped at a lake site where there were supposed to be some good birds. We only had 50 minutes here before the gate guard told us the gate would be locked and we would not be able to get out. On the way out, I spied a Torrant Duck with two half grown ducklings in tow, but they moved so fast upstream there was no chance to photograph them. They were also on the wrong side of a roadside fence.
We ended up at the same hotel in Cuenca, but this time we had a much better dinner!
Day 4, March. 15. Up and out early again, we drove further south, through more awful traffic to Loja, a small, attractive and clean city where I have visited twice before. It is sort of the jumping off place for several good locations further to the south. Also, the upper entrance of the Podicarpus National Park is just a few kilometers out of town.
We drove up to the entrance to the park where an archway and a guard house greet the visitor. I was very surprised to see that the gorgeous, colorful art that was painted on the archway that I had photographed two years ago had been painted over with cream colored paint. Why would anyone do this?
The government of Ecuador has done away with the entrance fees to national parks, but one must still sign in with the guard. We were soon in and drove to the end where there are a few picnic tables and a large building that houses a day guard, a bathroom and a few conference rooms.
I have visited this location probaby four times before, but it has never been very productive for me. This time was not an exception, although there were many, many lovely wild geraniums along the road in.
We returned to Loja and stopped at the Botanical Gardens just outside town. The Gardens were full of birds! Rudy heard and saw some Silver-backed Tanagers, a target bird The male was initially quite responsive to playback, but stayed in one place for such a short period of time that it was difficult to make a good photo.
We also saw some other interesting birds here, including a Southern Yellow Grosbeak, and a nice Blackburnian Warbler resplendant in breeding plumage.
We went back into the city and had a hard time finding a hotel.
The city is crowded at rush hour and hotels are not much in evidence. Finally we stopped, Rudy asked a policeman and we ended up in a very nice hotel named, of all things, the Podicarpus. It had a glass elevator, a nice room and the charge was a modest $40. When the house computer did not work, an employee let me use his personal machine to make my daily report to Chris!
Day 5 March 16. As usual, up and out early, returning to the Podicarpus NP. Within a half hour there, I had witnessed three incredible sights, although sadly none were recorded on my camera.
The first was a group of four colorful Hooded Mountain Tanagers feeding on fruit right next to the road. They were close together, so a potential great image. Unfortunately, when Rudy maneuvered the car for a shot, they flew off,
Next, Rudy called to me to come over and he pointed out a dazzling Red-hooded Tanager high in a tree, high over the road. No shot was possible, but what an incredible bird. Playback was ineffective, but the bird flew across the road and stood out like the proverbial “sore thumb” in the tops of trees down slope. I was heartbroken that it never got within camera range.
Finally, after we had parked up at the end of the road next to the big building, an Andean Fox ran out from a small covered picnic area and into the woods. It was only twenty yards away, but we could not relocate it. The fox was probably used to finding food scraps in these gazebos.
Rudy was using his playback to bring in two Grey-breasted Mountain Toucans that he had heard close by. I had an awful time getting an open shot of this bird, even though it was periodically perching close by. It just did not stay in one place for long and was often obscured by branches. In retrospect, I should have left my tripod and 2-400mm lens in the car and worked with a handheld 80-400. This would have been quicker and probably more successful.
While working the toucans, a pair of Barred Fruiteaters appeared and these too were difficult to work with the tripod. I did make a couple of fair shots of the male, however.
We debated whether to return to the Botanic Gardens or head on down to a small town of Vilcabamba, a charming little place that has attracted many Americans to relocate there or construct a vacation home. The Vilcabamba Lodge was supposed to have three really good birds on its grouds: the Plumbeous Rail, the Stygian Owl and the West Peruvian Screech Owl. All would be life birds for me and potentially good book birds.
We found the lodge without problem — it was just off the main road — and what an elegant place it turned out to be. Manicured lawns, tended flower beds, a swimming pool, sleeping quarters in separate buildings. We were not used to such opulence! We were soon checked in at the princely rate of $50 and went to our room, which could not have been nicer.
A staff member showed us the large tree where the owls allegedly roosted, but we could find none. We wandered around looking for a place where the rail might be seen. It was pretty dry and the places suggested by the staff did not look promising.
Rudy went exploring and found the most likely place to see the rails was a sugar cane field down the road 100 yards or so. We went down there, but even there looked problematic. The fields were dry and the cane at full height. After using playback and walking to the end of the break between two fields, we got out to a sandy, weedy spot alongside the river. There were two Saffron Finches feeding here, so I told Rudy to use his playback and I would work them. They responded pretty well, and a couple of times came close enough for good shots. They are a common bird in the Southwest, but still look for all the world like a canary!
While I was working the finches, Rudy went looking and found a Plumbeous Rail on the far side of the adjacent river. I set up and Rudy used his playback. Two rails appeared but stayed on the far side of the river. I did make some fair images of them before they grew tired of the provocation and wandered off. If we had been on the far side of the river, spectacular images would have resulted, methinks!
After this adventure, we returned to the lodge and had a wonderful fish dinner in the elegant dining room. Chrystal stemware and linen tableclothes were a little different from our usual dinners! Sitting next to us were two ex-pats, part of a rather large contingent of North Americans who live in this area. After dinner Rudy arranged for a box breakfast for each of us, a transaction that should have been very simple, but took a lot of effort.
Day 6, March 17. We had learned the previous day that the road south to Tapichalaca was still undergoing construction and repair (this has been going on for at least four years!) and was closed to traffic except for three hours a day. We departed Vilcabamba at 5:30 to avoid the closure and did so successfully. The road was in awful shape due to landslides and construction.
One of our primary targets at Tapichalaca was the Golden-plumed Parakeet. This bird is threatened in Ecuador due to habitat loss. It generally breeds only in wax palms and these trees have been felled extensively to celebrate Palm Sunday. Fortunately, efforts have been made to protect the palm and the bird. The Jocotoco Foundation that runs Tapichalaca has erected nest boxes in a small valley on their property and the parakeets have readily taken to these boxes.
We climbed down a rather steep trail into the valley itself, which was muddy and slippery. The morning was not condusive to good photography as it alternately rained and was fogged in. The parakeets flew off to feed and flew back in small numbers as we awaited photo ops. There were several times when birds were close, but the fog was so thick that no good photos were possible. Finally it lifted a bit and I was able to make some decent shots. This shot was made in the rain, which never seemed to let up for longer than a minute or two.
We were going to stay in a nearby village for the night, as the cost of the lodge is rather high, but Rudy was able to negotiate a discounted rate and I readily agreed. The Foundation has built a new building to accommodate probalby double the number of visitors priviously possible. It provided very comfortable and the employees could not have been more friendly or helpful.
We hung around the lodge for the remainder of the day, working the hummingbird feeders, as the rain continued. Amethyst-throated and Flame-throated Sunangels were visiting these feeders, as well as a few more common hummers. After a nice dinner prepared by Maria, we did not last long before turning in!
Day 7, March 18 The primary bird that attracts people to this lodge is a bird unknown to science until very recently. It is named the Jocotoco Antpitta and has been trained to come daily for a breakfast of worms, fed by an employee. I had seen this bird on two previous visits, but decided to accompany Diego on his rounds. We missed the main feeding, however, as we were distracted by other birds on the way up the trail. Fog once again inhibited good photography.
We hooked up with Diego after the feeding and followed him further up the trail to see an Andean Potoo on its day rest. Before we reach the potoo spot a Chestnut-naped Antpitta walked out on the path looking for a worm or two. Diego accommodated the bird who posed nicely for me.
The potoo was not much to see, with its head buried in its chest, but it was a life bird for me. We had to hurry back down the path, pack up and get out to make the opening of the road between noon and 1 PM. If we had missed that windown, we were stuck until 6PM. Luckily we were the first car in line when the road opened.
We drove north into Loja again and then out to the east to Zamora. Our destination was Copalinga Lodge, a private lodge run by a delightful Belgian couple, Catherine and Baldwin. We were looking for two rare birds, both of which would be lifers for me: the Spangled Coquette, a tiny hummingbird, and the Grey Tinamou, a chicken-sized bird that is extremely rare in Ecuador. I had very low expectations that we would see the latter.
Before we ever got to the lodge, we noticed several Swallow Tanagers feeding alongside the road. This is a nemisis bird for me, one I have seen and photographed many times, but without ever making the “killer shot” that the species deserves. I was able to make some long distance shots of the bird, but the perfect shot still eludes me.
While we were working this species, Catherine happend by on her way back to town and we had a nice chat. Later after we had checked in, she advised that the female Spangled Coquette only shows up at 6:10 in the morning and stays around for only ten or fifteen minutes. The male has long been absent. She said that Baldwin her husband would try to help with the tinamou, but that she would “guarantee” that we could see the Blackish Nightjar down the road. 100%
When 6:30 arrived, off we went, the three of us, a couple of kilometers down the road. Catherine pointed out where the nightjar rested and sure enough, there he was. This photograph was made with just flashlight for light. The birds eyes are so designed for night work, that a flash will result in a very bright spot in a photo and is not good for the bird either!
Day 8, March 19 We were up promptly the next morning and at a little after 6 were set up with tripod and 2-400mm lens on the tree where the coquette supposedly sat. Sure enough, within minutes it flew in and sat preening for ten minutes or so and then flew off to the nearby verbena to feed. I made images of this unimpressive female at the perch site and feeding. It is really too bad that the male was not present because he IS an impressive little fellow. I guess I will have to come down here again when he reappears, probably in September.
We then went after a colony of nesting Crested Oropendulas. I waited for well over an hour for one to land on its hanging nest — sort of like a big oriole nest — but it was not to be. The best I did was photograph one on the top of the palm tree where the nests were hanging. Note the bright blue eye on this bird!
The highlight of the day was to start at 3PM when Baldwin was going to lead us up to the spot where he fed the Grey Tinamou. We silently climbed this trail above the cabins until we came to a sheet of wood, looking like plywood, blocking the trail. Balwin carried a can of corn and shook it periodically, presumably to alert the tinamou of his arrival. He distributed the corn along the path and then told Rudy and I that he would be back in about 40 minutes from another feeding elsewhere. We were advised not to look through the two peep holes in the blind as the bird was very skittish and would see us. Despite my impatience, we did wait almost the full 40 minutes and when we looked, there was the bird. I made four or five images of the bird, none of which was super, but they were clear record shots. These apparently were the first photos of this bird at this location. We had a nice bottle of wine with Catherine and Baldwin after dinner to celebrate the occasion.
Day 9, March 20. We weren’t very successful in finding any new birds to photograph in the morning, but we went back for round 2 in the afternoon to get the Grey Tinamou. This time, things were different. We were going to feed the bird, and concentrate the food close to the blind board, but an employee had not gotten the word, so fed him early. We encountered the bird on the downhill side of the blind and it quickly went off the path and disappeared. Soon the employee appeared and it was clear that he was pushing the bird ahead of him.
Rudy decided that he should go way up the trail and wait for 30 minutes and then slowly approach the blind, hopefully again driving the bird towards me behind the board. But we first picked up all the corn that we could that had been spread up the trail! The plan worked as hoped and I was able to make seven or eight good photos of the tinamou.
Day 10, March 21 We checked out early and headed up the old Zamora-Loja Road, hoping for close-in birds. While we found a few life birds, they were hardly book birds. One was the Lemon-browed Flycatcher., interesting but not colorful enough to really qualify as a book bird.
After passing through Loja, we headed due west for 34 Kilometers to the town of Catamayo, where the Loja airport is located. We anticipated seeing some dry scrub birds here, but they were not in evidence. From Catamayo, we headed south towards the village of Utuani, where a target bird was located.
Aong the way we stopped and Rudy played the tape for Black-cowled Saltator, a bird that is normally quite skittish and remains hidden in deep cover. Here, however, the bird had clearly never heard a recording and responded vigorously. He was quite agitated and sounded off from the tops of nearby trees, providing me a nice opportunity for a book bird. At reserves, most birds have heard recordings so many times that they are immune and don’t respond or respond very briefly.
When we arrived at the village of Utuani, Rudy got out to ask directions and amazingly encountered a really nice man who had been an illegal immigrant in Newark for nine years. He was expelled and really wanted to be back in the states. He took us to the home of the guy who was the guard/caretaker at Utuani Reserve where we made arrangments to meet Angel the next morning at 6. It was a fortuitous meeting!
We then drove further down the road to the slightly larger village of Sozoranga, as there was no place to stay in Utuani. Sozoranga was famous for Chestnut-collared Swallow colony on the side of the local church that I had photographed on a trip several years ago. The town rebuilt the plaza and the swallows have moved from the church.
I was struck as we came into the town by some walls painted with murals. This is very common, even in the smallest towns and often the art is exceptional. Here is a mask on one wall, the significance unknown to me. I could not resist photographing it however.
We stopped at a small grocery story and bought food for the next morning. Rudy asked if there were a hostel in town and the woman said that she ran one…right next door. We checked it out and accepted the charge of $4 per night for each of two rooms! The lowest price I have ever paid for a room. One went up some dark wooden steps to a hallway where five doors to rooms were located. My room had two single beds, one made up, and two extremely cheap plastic chairs. That’s it! No window, no bed stand, no shower, no toilet, no nuttin! The toilet was across the hall and was not a place that Chris would have easily frequented! But it was a convenient place and we didn’t really need amenities.
Day 11, March 22 We were up early and drove to Angel’s home outside Utuani. He greeted us and his wife kindly gave us some newly baked pastries. Soon we drove Angel up to and into the reserve. His job was to fill the hummingbird feeders, but he showed up the two places where our primary target bird could be located. The Black-crested Tit Tyrant has heard recordings a hundred times and now is unimpressed. We quickly saw the bird, but it remained mostly hidden and impossible to photograph well. I did make some record shots. We tried the second location and here we were luckier. I finally made one image of the bird and is clear and full, but without his crest in the erect position. There was one opportunity for that shot, but my trusty Nikon did not focus properly for whatever reason.
The second bird I wanted at Utuani was the Rainbow Starfrontlet, a common feeder bird at the reserve. The problem is not finding the bird, it is making a good photograph. For the most part they are constantly in motion. To get the full color of the bird, one must be pointed right at the face, or slighly off. Otherwise, the irredescence disappears. I was finally, after many, many attempts, able to get the image I wanted.
From there we drove on down the road to Jorupe Reserve, another Jocotoco property. Here too they had cabins, but there we expensive to rent, so we decided to sleep in Macara. Macara is right on the border with Peru, a border town with all that that usually implies. That notwithstanding, we found a terrific hotel when Rudy asked a couple sitting on a bench outside a church for a recommendation. They suggested a hotel, just around the corner and it turned out to be the best in the town, the Arrozales. We got an air-conditioned room with a big bed for Rudy and a comfortable bed for me. Clean, great shower, the works. The damages were a mere $30 per night, a real bargain.
That night I wanted to E-mail Chris and also we needed dinner. The hotel clerk recommended an internet store a few blocks away with an outside grill across the street. We went to the restaurant, I ordered grilled chicken and as they prepared the meal, I made my e-mails. Mostly through the meal, I suddenly came across a backbone with a rib cage. Hmmmm, chickens dont have ribs. It was clear I had been served either a rat or a guinea pig. I was not pleased! Probably the worst experience of the trip!
Day 12, March 23 We drove back to Jorupe and found –much to our delight — that the chain that is often across the long drive up to the lodge was down and the gates open. We were met by Leo, a most pleasant fellow who told us that our target bird, the Pale-browed Tinamou, might show up at any time, but the Red-masked Parakeets would probably be around all day. Sure enough the parakeets soon arrived to feast on the corn that had been spread on the ground.
No sooner did I begin working the parakeets when someone yelled that the tinamou was walking towards the corn. The time was 6:55. Sure enough the bird walked over and began scarfing up corn. It paid no attention to me, so far as I could tell. I made maybe ten images before it disappeared back into the woods and never showed up again while we were there!
I spent the rest of the morning and into the afternoon working the parakeets. These birds are often found in and around town, but they are usually very skittish and difficult to photograph. The parakeets were simply oblivious to people. One could almost walk right up to them. I made dozens of images of the birds, like this pair that was cooing like lovebirds.
Rudy found a nest of Grey-cheeked Parakeets in a big ant nest in a tree. I staked out this nest for over an hour, but the birds never came back. To end the day I wanted to try for the Comb Ducks that were often seen in the river from the International Bridge between Peru and Ecuador. We drove down there and Rudy went looking. He thought it best that I remain with the car so as not to temp larceny of all our equpment. After awhile he was back, reporting that the ducks were indeed in the river, but far downstream.
Rudy went looking for a path downstream, while I remained on the sidewalk observering the Comb Ducks from afar. Suddenly I noticed a man out in the ricefield making his way towards the road. In one hand was a machete; in the other was a large snake, minus its head! Soon Rudy came walking up asking if I had seen the guy. At some point the guy disappeared, as the rice field was below street level.
Next thing I knew, there he was walking away from me down the sidewalk. I trotted after him and asked him as best I could in my broken Spanish if I could photograph him. He thought I just wanted to photograph the snake, as it was now draped over a fencepost. Rudy soon arrived and told the guy what I really wanted and the guy cheerfully complied. Don’t know what kind of snake it was, but don’t think it was poisonous.
We walked back up the sidewalk, Rudy suddenly explained, “Look at that!” There is a big dead tree were six Comb Ducks, having flown there to spend the night. Both of us knew we needed to get them. The light was low but coming from exactly the right direction for a late afternoon image.
We made our way down the the field level, over some rough places and then walked the dikes towards the ducks. Every twenty yards or so I would set the tripod down and make a few images. After awhile, the ducks got nervous and one by one flew off. In this image you casn see the big male and much smaller female to its right. The cinamon colored duck is a Fulvous Whistling Duck. We were both very pleased with ourselves because this is a very difficult bird in Ecuador and even more difficult to photograph.
We wanted a good meal this night and went to a restaurant recommended by the hotel clerk. It was dark, but open in front and Rudy leaned in and yelled hello. Turns out the guy was closing for the night (notwithstanding that it was Saturday night), but he opened up and served us a terrific meal. We were his only customers!
Day 13, March 24 We departed early, hoping to get to Manglares Churupe Reserve by the afternoon. The traffic was surprisingly light, I guess because it was Sunday, but it was a real blessing not to be fighting the eighteen wheelers and many buses.
When we reached Santa Rosa, I suggested working the shrimp ponds that are not far off the highway. Rudy was not enthusiastic because he had never birded here and thought there would be nothing except ducks and shore birds. But as we were looking for a turnaround spot, he spotted a Wood Stork flying over head and that got his interest. After the U, he spotted a tree with at least six birds. Not for a good photo, but for a record.
We drove in a side road. No one paid much attention to us so we proceded along. In all three or four times I have been here, we have never been allowed past a house at the very beginning of the ponds. We eyed all manner of waterfowl, including a few flamingos. At one point we were parked checking out a bunch of birds loafing on a mud flat in the middle of a pond. Suddenly, Rudy said, “You wont believe this!” There was a Peruvian Thick Knee, our last target bird, standling asleep on the island. Not an expected bird at all at this location.
Rudy carefully drove his car up to the end of the dike, then across a cross dike and then backed it down to a point where I was opposite the bird so that I could shoot from the window. The bird paid no attention.
Then we sat. The sun was high and bright when we arrived, so we stayed here for three hours waiting for the sun to get lower. In the meantime, the bird, laid down, got up, laid on his lower legs, all the time not seeming to even notice us. Finally, I got out of the car, used the tripod for stability and still the bird paid no attention. At that point, I climbed down the dike to pond level and made as many images as I wanted until we were simply worn out with bordom!
Drove out of the pond area and back to the main road where we continued our trip north. We got to a small town by the name of Puerto Inca and decided to eat and spend the night here. We had a fine dinner and then Rudy approached the desk at what looked like a very nice hotel. He was told, however that this was a cooperative and we could not stay there. He asked if there were any other hostels in town and was told no.
But we looked across the street and there was a sign for a hostal by the name of Yor Chris! How could I resist? There was no lobby, no front desk, nothing but a guy and his girlfriend sitting under a tarp in front of the building. After taking a quick look at the room, we had to drive down an alley where a metal sliding door opened to accommodate vehicles. Turns out that this was a place that catered to gentlemen bringing their mistresses for an asignation. The “24 hours” tells you that you can bring someone here at any time of the day or night, whenever the spirit moves and enjoy the privacy of an exit from your vehicle behind a closed gate, out of sight of prying eyes! Apparenely there are found all over South America. The price was right too! $20 with the oh-so-necessary a/c.
Day 14, March 25. After scarfing up a few pieces of rolls and perhaps a bite of chocolate, we were on our way to the Manglares Churupe Reserve. Rudy stopped at the office and was told of a new part of the reserve, off a side road 734. We drove up there, made the turns and ended up at the end of the road with a huge, new attractive building that looked like a visitors center. It was not open. There were a few people hanging out, however, and they explained where a short trail began, that ended in a boardwalk out into a mangrove swamp.
While I was waiting for Rudy to finish his conversation with the people there, I noticed some beautiful small butterflies flitting about. I made a few photos and later learned from Rudy that they are one of the very few Ecuador butterflies with a common name: Crackers. They always alight facing down.
We walked down the path and then the boardwalk. There wasn’t a whole lot of bird life around and even at the end, not much open area. But there was one bird there that I had never seen before: the Mangrove Warbler, a subspecies of the common Yellow Warbler. Rudy used playback on at least three and possibly four or five males that were very responsive. They danced around so much, however, and got behind foliege, that they were very difficult to photograph successfully. I did make a few good photos. I made a few more of a female Jet Antbird, a secretive bird, but not one that will end up in my book!
This being a salt water marsh area, we were hoping for a nice crab dinner that night. It was not to be! No one seemed to be serving crab and Rudy surmised that it was only served at noon time, when most Ecuadorians have their main meal. We spent another pleasant night in our little hideaway with several others. Not in the same room, however.
Day 15, March 26. We awoke to find it raining rather hard so took our time getting ready to go out. Our plan was to go into the main part of Manglares Reserve, where many different ducks had been seen by several groups in January. To get there, one has to walk down a farmers road to his buildings area and then down a long cow path to several spots of open water.
Several years ago Howard Youth and our guide at the time Mauricio Ruano, had taken a rough path through the woods from the Reserve HQ and came out at the buildings. It was our equivilent to the Bataan Death March. The mosquitos were so dense it was hard to believe. Even with lathering up, we were bitten multiple times and the path was so rough one had to keep ones head down to avoid falling down. I swore at the time I would never do this again!
It was a lot easier just going up the farmer’s dirt road. At the end he met us and it could have been a little dicey, but it turned out to be a very pleasant encounter. He had a great sense of humor and joked with us for twenty minutes or so. We then proceded up the cow path. We walked a considerable distance but never found any open water at all. Apparently with the January and February rains, all the plants in the fresh water marsh just grew up and covered the open water. I finally called a halt to this and we walked back out. I had seen exactly two flying birds: Muscovy Ducks (which were actually Ecuador lifers) and not made a single photograph for the morning. It was a total bust!
The question was then: what will we do with the rest of our time? I was flying out the following day on a redeye flight at midnight. We decided that we had about exhausted what was possible at Manglares and I wanted to go on over to Salinas where there are plenty of birds. Rudy really did not want to go through Guayaquil, but this was the only way to get to the road to the coast. We decided to go anyway.
The trip through Guayaquil was at least as bad as anticipated. The traffic was godawful and we lacked a good map. After flailing around for an hour or more, we finally found the road out to the coast and then the traffic was light and we breezed along. We had a spot where a friend had seen Thick Knees in January and I wanted to stop there to see if we could possibly find a chick. Rudy had directions to the same place, which was off the main road perhaps ten kilometers near the village of Atahualpa.
We found the road, made the turn, and then a second turn and ended up in an area that for most of the year is totally brown, dry, ugly scrub. But…it had been raining for a couple of months and the place was green as green can be. We saw lots of birds flitting about so began to get a little positive. We parked the car and both got out. I went one way, Rudy another looking for the Thick Knees.
After about twenty or twenty five minutes Rudy reappeared all smiles and told me that he had found three Thick Knees . I was convinced he was kidding me so made a bet with him that he really hadn’t found the birds. I shouldn’t have doubted him! He had walked right to the birds, instinctively knowing where they would be. We walked over, saw the birds from a distance, but again, just like the previous day, the sun was still pretty bright and we wanted to have a lower sun. And it was hot!
The area where we found ourselves had been what appeared to be a military training area at some point. There were the remains of a number of concrete buildings, most without rooves and we parked ourselves inside one in the shade to wait out the sun. While there I amused myself watching some lizards, one of which was busily digging a hole. There were gazillion lizards of many kinds in this desert area. Finally the sun got low and we made an approach on the Thick Knees. One again, they were not really concerned with us and I was able to get as close as I needed to be to make good photos.
After working those birds as much as I wanted to, I looked around at other nearby birds. One of which, the Crimson-breasted Finch, was a clear book bird, but quite difficult to approach. And not very responsive to playback. As the sun got lower, we decided to call it a day and retraced our steps to the main road and on in to Salinas.
Amazingly, we found the same hotel where we had stayed two years previously: the Sun Coast. This hotel is clean, pleasant, comfortable and very reasonable at $40, in a resort town. After checking in and getting ourselves somewaht presentable, we went into town and ate at the same restaurant that we had frequented previously, right on the waterfront. A little pricey, but a delicious meal of corvina. No crab availalbe again!
Day 16, March 27 We were up and out before most people were awake. They probably had been partying the previous night, where we just went to bed! Back we went to the Atahualpa location. Yes, there were all sorts of small birds around, including the gorgeous Crimson-breasted Finch. After a good deal of work and many false starts, we finally got a bird to pose nicely close by and I was able to make the shots I wanted.
It got to be 11 AM and the sun was now bright and hot, so we decided the photo part of this trip was over. We drove back into Salinas the back way along the coast, but saw no new birds. At the hotel Rudy asked the clerk if we could have a late check out. The woman readily agreed, although I expected I would be charged a modest amount.
Off we went to lunch and this time, at a open air food mart where there are many vendors, we found one who had crab. So we finally enjoyed this for our last meal together. Back to the motel, we napped a bit, got cleaned up and packed, and took off for Guayaquil Airport at 3:30. There was no extra charge!
Our ride in was uneventful until we approached the city and the rain began. Rudy had gotten very good directions, and a hand drawn map, so we had no problem navigating to the airport. The traffic was really heavy, however, it being rush hour. The rain was now pouring. Fortunately, there was a partial roof at the drop off place for outgoing passengers, so I did not get soaked. We said our goodbyes and Rudy headed north for Quito.
I went inside intending to check my bags with American and then hang out reading a book Rudy gave me called the Big Burn. But this did not occur. Amercian’s counter was not open and was not going to open until 8:30. So I sat down at a cafe table, ordered a diet Coke and read. At about 9 I checked in, dropped my bags, went through security to the waiting area and sat down awaiting the flight. Fortunately, I had a big chocolate bar, so was not hungry. At 11:15 we began loading and I took my seat in Row 30. I expected to sleep most of the way to Miami.
Day 17, March 28. It was not to be. First, they served dinner at about 1. (One of the worst airport meals ever. It was supposed to be chicken, but it was mystery meat!) Then I slept for an hour, but awoke and could not get back to sleep. At 5:37 we landed in Miami. My flight was supposed to leave at 6:40, so I knew it was going to be close.
Miami airport may be the worst in the world. It must have been more than a quarter mile from the gate to the immigration lines. Half the moving walkways were either turned off or being repaired. I went as fast as I could, but when I arrived at immigration, there were about 100 people ahead of me. It took 30 minutes to get through this line. Then off to customs, but first I had to retrieve my two big bags. All the bags had been removed from the carousels and there was no sign indicating which pile came from Guayaquil. So that took a few more minutes. At customs, I was sent to a separate full check line of 17 people because I had declared the end of my chocolate bar. By the time I had cleared here, I knew I had missed my flight, so just went to the rebooking line and changed my flight to 9:30.
I called Chris to advise her not to come to National at 9 when my first flight was scheduled to arrive. She didn’t asnwer, so I figured she was in the shower. Just before entering the security line, I happened to look at the departing flight info and noticed immediately that my first flight had just left at 7:51. American had not programed their computer to accommodate daylight saving time, so I was misled to the actual departure time by a full hour.
There were 91 people ahead of me in the security line and that took another 45 minutes. In the meantime, I called Chris on her cell phone and found that she had already gone to National so she could greet me at 9 What a princess! Got my later flight finally and arrived at National at 12 something. So Chris had been sitting there for over five hours reading her book. I was amazed to find her very mellow! I was disgusted with American and the Miami airport. Oh well… Not a pleasant way to end a successful trip.